How to be a Great Online Community Member

Sarah Hawk

Whether you’re after a quick answer to a question or you’re looking to meet people you can bounce ideas off of or get inspiration from, there are certain things that you need to know if you want to make the most of any online community. It’s about more than just following the rules and not getting banned; it’s about knowing how to find and use the resources that are available to your best advantage.

The first point to remember is that everyone was new once—both to the forum and to the web development industry as a whole. Most of us had an “I hope they don’t think I’m stupid for asking this” moment, whether it was here at SitePoint or off at some other forum. For every person who entertains this thought and asks the question anyway, there are 100 people that benefit from the answer. So take the plunge.

Help!

The most important factor that you should know is where you can go for help. A forum will usually have a set of guidelines available for reading. The SitePoint forum guidelines can be found beneath the grey navigation bar up the top left of the page. Here at SitePoint we like to call them FAQs because that makes them sound less like rules – but in order to make them obvious we’ve added in the ‘R’ word.

If you’re unable to find the advice you seek, your next step would be to contact a staff member. The easiest way to find which staff members are online is to look for the list of currently active users; most forums have one. At SitePoint, go to the forum home page and scroll to the bottom. There you’ll see all the currently active users (shown in Figure 1, “The Currently Active Users display at SitePoint”)—and they’re color-coded like this:

  • Red: the Community Manager (and forum administrator)
  • Green: Advisors, who moderate the forums. They can move, edit, and delete posts, as well as deal with members causing any problems.
  • Orange: Mentors, who act as eyes and ears for the moderators, and are there to give you advice and point you in the right direction.
  • Blue: Team Leaders, who lead teams of Advisors and Mentors.

Figure 1. The Currently Active Users display at SitePoint

who's online

You can contact any of these people for help. The best way to do this is to send them a PM (or private message). More on this in a little bit.

Of course, the way a forum works is that everyone helps each other. So within SitePoint, you’re welcome to post in the Forum Support area and you’ll no doubt be inundated with advice from the community.

How do I reach out?

There are several ways to contact other forum members here at SitePoint. The most common is the aforementioned PM. There’s more than one way to send a PM, but the easiest is to click on a person’s username and select Private Message from the menu pictured in Figure 2, “The username menu”.

Figure 2. The username menu

You have the ability to track your PMs, which will enable you to see when the recipient has read your message. You need to remember to enable that option before you hit send on the message. Above and to the left of the Submit Message button is a list of additional options, shown in Figure 3, “Private Message options”. One of those is Request a read receipt for this message.

Figure 3. Private Message options

PM options

What can I do to make you like me?

Well, there are a few ways you can endear yourself to other forum members. The most obvious is to behave. One of the most important factors to keep in mind when you’re in a forum is that everyone is there to learn. No one likes a school bully, and we have a particular dislike of like bullies here at SitePoint. They certainly won’t be tolerated in most communities. When hundreds of thousands of people from different backgrounds come together, there are likely to be differences of opinion. That’s cool—it’s what makes the place interesting. It does mean that on occasion you’ll probably have to bite your tongue. There are days when it feels like I’ve bitten mine off. But I’ve also made some great friends.

Because a forum attracts people that are brand new to a subject, it means that you’re bound to come across questions that you think are stupid. You’ll probably ask some dumb ones at some stage too, so make sure you treat everyone you come across in the same way that you’d like us to treat you. I realise that this might sound as if I’m talking down to you, but it’s amazing how many people forget it. The key points to remember are to be patient, supportive, and polite.

Okay, so I’ll be good. What else should I be doing?

Well, there are a few things actually. I’ll go into them in detail now.

The first of these may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised at how many people are caught out by it. I’m talking about spam.

Spam? Huh? There’s no way I’d do that.

I’m sure it’s unintentional, but sometimes spam is in the eye of the beholder. You might have just written what you consider to be the most amazing free script known to humankind. You’ve signed up to a forum with the sole intention of sharing it with as many people as possible, because that’s the kind of generous person you are. Now consider it from the moderator’s point of view. They see a new member come on board and their very first post happens to be a link back to their own site. That, my friends, looks very much like spam. At SitePoint, we have some very careful guidelines regarding what we term “self-promotion,” so make sure you have a thorough read of those before you make that super-generous first post.

Finding Information Without Asking Questions

Believe it or not, there are often better ways to use a forum than by simply asking questions. The very nature of large online communities usually means that a member has probably already experienced the same issue as you. So before you post, there are a couple of tactics you should try.

The first of these is the sticky threads. A sticky thread is one that’s marked Important: and remains listed at the top of its forum. As the name suggests, these threads are deemed to be important because they usually contain information pertaining to commonly known issues or subjects. Check through the stickies at the top of the appropriate forums. You may want to run a text search if the sticky is huge.

If the stickies don’t contain the information that you require, try performing a search. Here are a few search tips to streamline the process for you:

  • First, figure out which subforum(s) your issue is most likely to fall within. At SitePoint, the advanced search option allows you to select multiple forums to search across.
  • Decide on a relevant keyword or short key phrase. Those keywords will be highlighted in the results when they’re returned.
  • If your issue can be narrowed down to a particular time frame (for example, it relates to a software version that was released last week), enter a date parameter to speed it up.

My search was fruitless, so I need to post a question … Eek!

That’s cool, posting questions is what we’re all about. As with your search, the first step is deciding which forum is the most appropriate. No need to freak out about it: if you’ve gone through the wrong forum, one of our friendly moderators will move your post—no harm done.

Once you’ve found your forum, look for the new thread button. On the SitePoint forums you’ll find it near the top left, just below the orange sponsor bar, as pictured in Figure 4, “The SitePoint new thread button”. Click that and you’re good to go. There are all sorts of formatting options, but you can worry about those later, once you have the hang of it.

Figure 4. The SitePoint new thread button

new thread

The two most important guidelines to remember when submitting a new thread are to write a great title and to preview your thread before posting.

A great title is vital because it’s the only part of your post that people see when they’re skimming down the list of new posts. For a question about database indexing, a title that reads “Add index on table containing more than 3 million rows” is far more likely to gain the attention of those that can help you out than a title that says “Newbie needs help!!!”

It’s always a good idea to preview your post before you submit it. That way you can make any necessary changes and check your formatting. Once you post, you only have 30 minutes to go back and edit any spelling or other mistakes. Which brings me to my next tip.

The Internet is Forever

Before you post, please think carefully about what you post. These days it’s good business practice to Google your company name every so often to see what people are saying about you. For that reason, if you’re asking for basic advice on how to deal with a difficult client, it would be prudent to avoid naming them.

Another situation to be mindful of is if you’re working on a client’s website. If you require help getting a drop-down menu to work, it might make sense to upload the example pages to your own server, rather than linking straight to your client’s site—especially if you’ve claimed to be a CSS expert.

At SitePoint we accept that occasionally people make silly mistakes and we’ll do everything we can to help you out, but we simply lack the time to edit links out of hundreds of posts. So please, think first.

It’s also important to note that we don’t delete accounts or posts. There are two reasons for this. The first is to retain our database integrity, and the second is because people may learn from your question in the future.

I’m a little unsure of what I’m doing … can I practice posting?

Absolutely. A forum should have a place where you can get your head around stuff before taking the plunge. At SitePoint, that is the General Discussions forum. There is even a thread for new members to introduce themselves. Look out for The BIG MONSTER thread of bonjour, hello, g’day and howdy y’all!

Once you’ve introduced yourself, have a browse through the General Discussions forum. It is the place to go if you’re sick of geek talk or you just want to have a moan about your weekend, or find other people that share your love of miniature ponies.

Why are there no links under my posts like everyone else?

Those links are commonly referred to in the forum world as signatures. The purpose of a forum signature is twofold. First, it gives people the opportunity to find out a bit about you. If you’ve made some really informed posts about a subject that they’re interested in, they might click a link in your signature to seek out your services. Second, it gives you an opportunity to advertise your wares.

Unfortunately, this second purpose means that people sometimes sign up to forums just to attempt to link build—create a back-link to a site for SEO (search engine optimization) purposes—and make no meaningful contribution. In order to combat this, most forums become no-follow forums. With a little code, a forum can turn all of the signature links into no-follow links; that means search engine indexing spiders will not follow them, nor use them to enhance search results.

Signature links form the basis of one of the greatest misconceptions on the SitePoint forums. Signature links will give you no SEO benefits whatsoever. Regrettably, this fails to stop people from trying. As a result we’ve had to put some restrictions in place. New members have to wait 90 days before they’re able to set up a signature. If you see this on other forums they may have a similar restriction.

Is there anything that I should specifically avoid doing?

Indeed, there are a few negative elements that can really hurt a community. We ask you to avoid being rude or impatient. Most importantly, never belittle others. Be nice. It’s not that hard.

One aspect that makes online communities very different to other types of communities is that you never talk face to face. That means that there’s no benefit of body language signals. For this reason, it’s a blessing that the emoticon (or smiley) was invented. If you think your post might come across as negative in some way, add a :) at the end to eliminate the sting. The power of a :) is one of the wonders of modern-day communication.

If I think the rules are being broken, what should I do?

This is where another great forum invention comes into play—the flag post button. Most forums have a button or an icon that you can click to draw the attention of a moderator to a post. You might do this for any number of reasons. You might see a post that’s rude or breaks the rules. It might be in the wrong forum, or it might be a fluff post (more on those soon).

At SitePoint, in the bottom left of each post is a little orange flag icon; in Figure 5, “SitePoint’s flag post icon” you can see it in the bottom left corner. There will never be enough moderators to look at every post, so we rely on you—the members—to help out. Use the flag post button whenever you deem it necessary, and if you’re in doubt—do it. If a moderator decides that no action is required, then none will be taken, so no harm done.

Figure 5. SitePoint’s flag post icon

orange flag

So what on earth is a fluff post?

Ah, the dreaded fluff post is the bane of any forum administrator’s life. Fluff is the pet name given to a post that falls below what members consider to be our post quality standard. People visit forums to read posts that are interesting and contribute to the place. If a forum was full of posts that were there purely to drop links or boost post counts, people would abandon it quickly.

So here at SitePoint we have a post quality guideline. We accept that English may not be everyone’s first language, so there’s no requirement for your grammar or vocabulary to be perfect. We just ask that every post be:

  • meaningful: advice with substance
  • relevant: on topic and helpful, rather than generic advice
  • new: information that hasn’t already been said in the thread

This means that “thanks for sharing” or “nice post” fail to make the grade, I’m afraid.

Wow, that’s a lot to take in!

It is, so let me summarize the key points:

  • You can gain help by reading the forum guidelines or contacting a staff member. See our FAQ.
  • The easiest way to contact a member is by using the Private Message system.
  • Be patient, supportive, and polite.
  • Search before posting—your question may have already been answered.
  • Avoid posting links for the sole purpose of self-promotion. SitePoint is a no-follow forum so there’ll be no back-links from us.
  • Give your posts descriptive titles.
  • Think before posting; your words will remain on the Internet for a long time.
  • Don’t be afraid to use the flag post button.
  • Ensure that your posts are original, meaningful, and relevant.

Okay, any last tips?

Sure, enjoy yourself!

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